Sunday, 27 October 2013

Meglos written by Andrew McCulloch and John Flannigan and directed by Terrance Dudley

This story in a nutshell: Thanks be to Ti that the Doctor revisits Tigella in as time of their greatest crisis...

Teeth and Curls: There’s a lovely description of the Doctor as a man who solves the insoluble by the strangest of means, who sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break. This was the beginning of the domestic period of Doctor Who where stories would start with an interminably long period spent gossiping in the TARDIS (actually this began in the Williams era but was far more witty and likable in stories like the Pirate Planet and The Horns of Nimon) and in Meglos the Doctor literally spends the whole of episode one fixing K.9! He doesn’t leave the TARDIS or touch the plot for about 40 minutes – in Destiny of the Daleks he went ‘screw the laryngitis, let’s explore!’ Plus I would have thought that he and Romana would have better things to do in the TARDIS then fiddle about with the metal mutt. I thought that was what JNT was trying to get away from. It's no wonder that people were abandoning the show in droves if the hero does nothing but spout technobabble whilst the guest cast are completely responsible for the plot for almost an hour – they probably thought they were watching an episode of Star Trek. Then they add in a chronic hysteresis loop and we have to suffer the whole shebang over and over again well into episode two. It's almost as if Tom Baker has become so unbearable at this point the writers are instructed to keep him away from the other guest performers as long as possible (where he will inform them the script is ‘whippet shit’ whilst tossing it at their heads and make them question why they agreed to take part in the first place). On the plus side having Tom Baker play the baddie is a small stroke of genius because it is completely destabilising for kids who have come to depend on this character over the last seven years. Plus Baker gives the villainous role his all and had great fun restraining that explosive anger and releasing it a bit at a time (‘I…swear allegiance to Ti?’). Scenes of the prickly, subdued Meglos trying to hold onto his humanoid victim and kidnapping Karis are some of Baker's most effective of the season – strange that they should occur in the seasons weakest story. The Doctor being referred to as a fraud and a liar makes no sense because he simply doesn’t do that sort of thing.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Lalla Ward struggles gamely with the material she is given in this story to make anything of it. Gone is her acerbic wit and resourcefulness from season 17 and instead she is reduced to running repairs for K.9 and running through the forest (and trying to make it look bigger than four foot wide and failing) like a frightened little girl. I find it hard to imagine this is the same person who (‘Despicable worm!’) took on the Doctor’s role in The Horns of Nimon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘D’you know for one awful moment I thought you’d forgotten your lines…’
‘This is the second time you’ve been in here!’ ‘I say, you’ve got a marvellous memory!’
‘Let’s hope that many hands will make the lights work!’

The Good:
· The musical score for Meglos is one of my favourites in the last ten years of the classic series. If there is one thing that JNT got very right it was to move the show away from The Dudley Simpson Hour (as good as his music can be to was getting a little repetitive as time went on) and introduce some new styles of music to the series. Whilst some might suggest that the tinny, radiophonic synth music lacks the conviction of the Simpson’s instrument offerings I would counter that argument with the fact that the music for season eighteen is some of the freshest, most exciting and beautiful we enjoyed in the entire show. The scores for The Leisure Hive, Meglos, Full Circle, Warriors’ Gate, Logopolis and Castrovalva are all superb and I regularly listen to the soundtracks whilst I am working around the flat (yeah, I know...sad). I love the creepy electronic choral style for the Deon scenes and the insistent, electronic chorus that accompanies the Doctor’s sacrifice at the end of episode three (‘DIEDIEDIEDIEDIE!’). Since the soundtrack is a collaboration of two of the best, Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, it is like having the best of both worlds. My favourite piece comes when the screens of Zolfa Thura ascend, it sells a potentially dodgy effect very well.
· It’s only bloody Jacqueline Hill! Just when I was about to give up on the Tigella scenes our very own Barbara and one of my favourite actresses turns up to give the planet a sense of realism and the scenes some gravitas. She’s saddled with an overwrought character but just as she did when a poor script arrived in the Hartnell era she makes the most of it and gives a little extra to turn shit into gold (her rant at Hartnell in the vague and unsatisfying two parter The Edge of Destruction is a great example).
· The sudden cut away from the dreadful theatrics in the Tigellan court to the Zolfa Thura, boasting the new scene sync technology, some glorious music from Paddy Kingsland and introducing the deadpan comic relief thugs is a massive breath of fresh air. The effects aren’t perfect (fringing is obvious and there should have been sand pouring off of the top of Meglos’ base when it rises up before them) but I appreciate the scale and the ambition that has gone into them and as a Doctor Who fan suspension of belief are my middle names (although it is sorely tested throughout this story). Bill Frazer and Frederick Treaves are a very amusing double act, they feel as if they have stumbled onto the set from the Steptoe & Son studios and give deliciously gruff and disinterested performances that makes these characters far more likable than the earnest lot on Tigella. They are exactly the sort of irreverent nasties a story like this needs. McCulloch and Flannigan have created a memorable Robert Holmesian double act in the same mould as Irongron and Bloodaxe (Broterdac stares in uncomprehending reverence at Grugger just as Bloodaxe did and it is just as funny). Grugger kicking K.9 thus making him the most loathsome man in the galaxy is a delicious extraneous moment of enmity.
· Am I the only person who doesn’t mind the idea of a sentient cactus? They are bloody horrid things in real life (I have never owned a cactus that I haven’t scratched myself on quite badly so naturally I consider them all to be up to no good anyway) and we only have to endure the rubbery monstrosity for a few minutes before the much more intriguing (and well realised) idea of the spikes bursting from the skin of those infected begins. It's just another sentient plant (like The Keys of Marinus, The Seeds of Doom) and another creature with the ability to take over its victims minds (pick any Hinchcliffe story). The collaboration of the snivelling, thieving Gaztaks and creepiness of Meglos (his impersonation of the Doctor with spiny skin must have frightened whoever wasn’t watching Buck Rogers to death!) gives this story a much needed kick up the ass.

The Bad:
· After their suggestion that Doctor Who is a classy American cult show with the pan across Brighton beach opening the stylishly shot debut story of the season we begin this adventure in a boring long shot of the tatty old console room with things looking as cheap as possible. It's nice to know that JNT still intends to make Doctor Who.
· The early scenes of this adventure (‘Its going to blow!’) showing the Savants scuttling about trying to hold their planet together scream of a writer trying to set up a civilisation convincingly but trying a little too hard to succeed. Those stupid wigs don’t help. Plus the science versus religion angle (which has been handled much better in stories in the past) is dealt with in too unsubtle a manner to portray a convincing population divide. Is this supposed to be a massive underground city because it feels as though a handful of people that live in a small scattering of rooms who have found a way of squabbling to keep their lives interesting. On Argoils in The Leisure Hive the setting was supposed to be one building but you really got the sense of the scale of the planet and the war between the Foamasi and the Argolins but that sense of numbers and history is lacking here. The line ‘Zastor, I tell you this as a Savant, a scientist, one who works hard to understand these things that our safe and bountiful city may well be on the edge of total extinction!’ is appalling because nobody would structure a sentence like that and fill it full of so much hyperbole (except possibly in one of my reviews) and exposition. Why would you tell Zastor everything the man seems to already know? There are much better ways of going about this sort of thing. It’s an unconvincing way of trying to relay information to the audience.
· Without a doubt Edward Underdown is an impressive actor with an illustrious career but he is clearly past his prime when it comes to learning his lines and speaking them authentically and as a result Zastor, as the man who is supposed to be holding this planet together with his bare hands, is a complete non-entity rather than the compelling character the writers would have been hoping for. Mind you ‘I’m Zastor, now the Tigellan leader!’ would be struggle for any actor. Bless him he struggles gamely to react to Lexa and her followers taking over in episode three but he can’t quite get the lines out and as a result sounds like a doddery old git being taken out to pasture. Not the most dignified performance to end your career.
· As much as I protested earlier I don’t mind the chronic hysteresis scenes that much (it’s a different sort of cliffhanger, at least), my objection is that they don’t have any impact on the plot. It is a device to keep the Doctor out of the action for as long as possible so Meglos can infiltrate Tigella. Had the conclusion involved some kind of similar time loop it would have been a clever way of introducing the concept for later use but as it stands it is just helps the story to run on the spot for ten minutes, nothing more. Plus the way to escape the loop is to go through the motions deliberately? How does that make any logical sense? The loop thinks ‘oh look they’ve already done it…I may as well not bother!’ and breaks the cycle? Then to compound the situation there is a number of scenes where Romana literally walks the Gaztaks around in circles…it seems that there is very little plot between the inauguration of the story and its conclusion and so it has to be filled up with lots of tedious reciprocating action. It wouldn’t be so bad if the conclusion was worth getting to but…well it isn’t. The cliffhanger reprises are really long as well and the episodes are really short...perhaps this should have been three parts?
· We’ve seen some great jungle sets in Doctor Who (I would say the terrifying claustrophobia of Mira in The Daleks’ Masterplan and the humid atmosphere of Chloris in Creature from the Pit were amongst the best) and some appalling ones too (the plastic leaves of Planet of the Daleks, the sparse drabness of The Face of Evil…and the undisguised studio of Kinda still to come) but Tigella strikes me as the worst of the lot. It is built upon the worst excesses of all three of these examples – the lighting is so bad it feels as overlit as the TARDIS studio set, the ‘lush aggressive vegetation’ looks distinctly rubbery and the attention to detail doesn’t extend to anything more than some fronds and shiny artificial leaves. The giant roses (sorry bell plants) look especially cumbersome (we haven’t seen anything this bad since the Fungoids and that includes the man eating monstrosity in the TARDIS in The Invasion of Time!) and watching poor Lalla Ward struggle gamely against it must be the nadir of her career on the show.
· Talking of production values…how bad is that shoot out at the end of episode three? It makes the action scenes in the Pennant Roberts helmed classics later in the era look like Reservoir Dogs! The Gaztaks break through the (clearly) sugar glass door with a lightweight battering ram before an exchange of coloured rays ensues. I can suspend my belief in Doctor Who to an extent but there is a limit. In the same vein the giant hunk of rock that threatens to squish the Doctor like an insect is clearly polystyrene because it is being held up by a thin rope that burns through in about ten seconds! Strangely when the Gaztaks and Meglos head back to Zolfa Thura it looks like somebody has forgotten to add the photographic backdrop so they stand against a fuzzy yellow curtain. The green sludge slurping across the floor when Meglos departs his host body has to be seen to be believed.
· Lexa is killed because…? It's one of the cheapest tricks in a story full of them and makes no sense. Are they suggesting she can only be redeemed by giving up her life to save another? Does that make up for trying to kill the Doctor? Not only that but the filming of the scene seems like a dreadful afterthought just before the studio lights extinguished and lacks any poignancy. What a despicable way for Jacqueline Hill to end her Doctor Who career.

The Shallow Bit: Goodness knows why the costume designer chose to squeeze Lalla Ward into that outfit that makes her both no-nonsense and frumpy! It looks as though she has net curtains for sleeves!

Result: It makes me laugh to this day that John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead criticised the Graeme Williams/Douglas Adams collaboration and wanted to take the show away from ‘that’ll do’ and ‘too much silliness’ and then they produce Meglos as their second story which is the epitome of those two criticisms. What’s even funnier is that it is the camp excesses of this story that so strongly mimic the best of the Williams era are that are the most enjoyable elements of this story – Tom Baker’s arch performance as Meglos and the chucklesome Gaztaks who feel as though they have wandered into the wrong show and just bully everybody for a laugh! When we are focussing on the Tigellan politics the show abandons all ambition and realism and it's one dreary artificial scene after another (despite Jacqueline Hill’s best efforts). When it comes to the universe of planets in Doctor Who Tigella is up there with Dulkis and Karfel in terms of the effort that has gone into establishing it visually and creatively. It’s a story that is bogged down with sci-fi clichés - a planet on the verge of extinction, doppelgangers (which even the Doctor calls ‘old fashioned’), a megalomaniac wanting to take over the universe, sentient plants - and fails to do anything original with any of them. Add to that a general failing in production values which really highlights the unnatural nature of the production, a waste of Lalla Ward’s talents and a final episode that lacks any interest or ingenuity and you have a disappointing sophomore effort for this supposedly fresh new season. If it wasn’t for the music and Tom Baker’s efforts I would write this one off completely: 4/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I must admit to enjoying the chronic hysteresis scenes. Love me a good old time loop. I must admit to enjoying the chronic hysteresis scenes. Love me a good old time loop. I must admit to enjoying the chronic hysteresis scenes. Love me a good old time loop. I must admit to...

Joe Ford said...

:-) x

Anonymous said...

Wow - loving the sexy new look!


Joe Ford said...

What? The green spikes? Or the blog? :-)